Top-notch
Posted: 11 January 2008 01:58 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I have been searching the net for information on the origin of the expression “top-notch” --- and find lots of folk etymology, but no hard facts to speak of. Mr. Quinion himself admits he’s stumped. It looks and sounds as though it might be a term with a very specific original meaning, like “taken aback”, or “pegging out” --- but no one seems to be able to pin it down. Can anyone here throw a glimmer of light on the subject?

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Posted: 11 January 2008 02:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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OED:

top notch, the highest notch; fig. the highest point attainable; also attrib. first-rate, ‘tip-top’

Not overwhelmingly convincing, but there it is.
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Posted: 12 January 2008 02:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Michael Quinion:

The problem is that the term appears in print for the first time in the 1840s already fully formed in its modern sense with nothing to point to where it comes from. The earliest example I’ve come across is in an advertisement in the Huron Reflector of Norwalk, Ohio, dated 29 April 1845, which is worth quoting for its period flavour:

J. WHYLER Has just arrived from the Great Emporium, with a Tremendous Cargo of Spring and Summer Goods, Which he is now unloading at his Old Stand in Norwalk — consisting of the choicest selections he ever made — the top notch of Fashions and Patterns — and an extensive variety of DRY GOODS, to suit his Old Customers and every other person who will give him a call.

The term becomes widely recorded in the later 1840s and early 1850s, suggesting that it had suddenly come into fashion, perhaps because of some incident or happening, though there’s nothing to show what that might have been. It seems clear enough that there was some sort of activity in which notches or notching played a part and in which reaching the top one was to be first-rate or the very best. But what that might have been is a mystery. A plausible idea is that it was a scoring system in some game; another is that it’s somehow related to lumberjacks, who would cut notches in bit trees and hammer in boards so they could climb to a height suitable to start felling.

Edit: I posted this after lionello had specifically referred to Quinion.  I just can’t help myself.  I have this irrepressible urge to see my name on this forum, and see the number of my posts increase.

[ Edited: 12 January 2008 06:34 AM by ElizaD ]
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Posted: 12 January 2008 07:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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FTR

DOWNINGVILLE. Dec. 27. 1839
The first rule smashing top notch
high life visit I ever made was down
to New York just about the time the General
was made President.

The run-on adjective construction sounds more modern than 1839 but there it is.

There are examples back as far as 1833, but my adobe reader is locking up.

edit: The 1833 usage is more literal but interesting nonetheless

and then to ride about the city awhile in a
fine painted covered waggon with four or
five horses to draw it, and then-ride awhile
in one without any cover to it, finney fined
off to the top notch,

No idea what a finney is or why it would be fined off. I also may be reading those two words incorrectly.

[ Edited: 12 January 2008 07:39 AM by Oecolampadius ]
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Posted: 12 January 2008 09:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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The first thing that came to mind was “finial,” though that’s purely conjecture. Something you might see on a highly ornate wagon.

The run-on adjective construction sounds more modern than 1839 but there it is.

Interesting to see where modern customs and usages come from. Every so often you read something that’s quite old but sounds very modern. I think I first noticed the phenomenon in a Whitman intro or essay back in college. Or maybe it’s just a matter of writers who don’t resort to the more stilted language prevalent among their contemporaries.

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Posted: 12 January 2008 02:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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"Finney-fined” I don’t know; I can only guess it’s something like “refined”, maybe “finicky-refined”.

“Top notch” = “highest level” in that 1833 piece, I suppose.

Also here: _Eastern Argus_ [Portland ME], 14 Feb. 1826: p. [2]: //And the state of Connecticut, the very top notch of morality, ....//

Also here: _Pittsfield [MA] Sun_, 6 Aug. 1829: p. [3]: //a _fashionable_ lady, dressed to the top notch of _fashion_ ....//

Also here: _Hagerstown [MD] Mail_, 29 Jan. 1836: p. [1]: //Prices are up to the top notch.//

Here is just _one possible_ ancestor:

_Book of Games_ (1812) [at Google Books]: p. 38: [boys talking about high jumping] //Can you jump over that stick now? / No .... / Why we have it much higher sometimes; look, I will take it now that it is raised to the top notch.//

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Posted: 12 January 2008 03:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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This seems to be an earlier example:

_Portsmouth [NH] Oracle_, 12 Nov. 1808: p. [1]: [title of a political item, apparently about an ‘embargo act’] //ON MUZZLES: / Or, the Top Notch of Modern Republicanism.//

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Posted: 12 January 2008 09:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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And compare:

_New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette_ [Concord NH], 3 Feb. 1834: p. [2]: [rising prices] //so severe is the ‘pressure’ that we cannot purchase a pound of good butter short of 18 or 20 cents cash; ....: beef, pork, ..., and in short every thing produced on a farm, is up to the highest notch.//

G. R. Gleig, “The Country Curate”, in _Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine_ (1826): p. 145: //’the horse that Charles bought for me, took me clear over the bar at the highest notch this morning, in the riding-school.’//

Looks to me like maybe the original notch was the one in which was seated the bar over which one jumped (on horseback or otherwise).

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Posted: 13 January 2008 05:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Looks to me like maybe the original notch was the one in which was seated the bar over which one jumped (on horseback or otherwise).

Very tantalizing, Doug.  Nice work.

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Posted: 13 January 2008 07:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Yes, I’m impressed.  I hope the OED is taking note.

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Posted: 13 January 2008 08:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Yes. Good work, Douglas. Thank you.

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Posted: 13 January 2008 08:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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As for the synonym “top-hole” (chiefly and/or stereotypically UK, I think) ....

_Sporting Magazine_ (1824): p. 112: //I was amused at his rider telling me he could not think why he could not get him over a small stile in the run, as he would leap the top hole of the bar in the ride, at the stables where he stood.//

W. P. Lennox, _Philip Courtenay_ (1855): p. 172: //"Bill, put up the bar—top hole; he leaps like a squirrel. Now, Jim,” and away went Jim, with his back bent, his knees doubled up, and cleared the bar in style.//

I can’t find a clear example of the figurative “top-hole” = “top-notch” before 1899 right now.

What does OED have for this?

[ Edited: 13 January 2008 08:53 PM by D Wilson ]
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Posted: 13 January 2008 09:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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1899 DOYLE Duet vi. 74 We certainly did ourselves up to the top hole last night. 1908 E. V. LUCAS Over Bemertons ii, ‘A top-hole idea’, he called it. 1909 Blackw. Mag. Sept. 409/1 A piece like the Merry Widow..would be top-hole.

There’s an apparently unrelated (and no earlier) sense of “top-hole” in mining, apparently referring to a hole cut between levels to allow ventilation or the escape of unwanted gases (such as methane, I suppose).

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